Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Pursuit of Self

I've had this piece sitting in draft form for over two months now. And after tinkering with it for ages, I figured that this weekend, the 45-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, was a perfect time to finally post it. 

I found Grayson Moore online. After four semesters of assigning my students a profile paper, I realized that I’d never written one myself. Which was totally unfair. So I decided to join them. I logged on to the Facebook group “Mormons Building Bridges” and asked if there were any transgender members who’d be willing to be interviewed. Grayson Moore was one of the first to comment.

Grayson was born assigned female at birth, the second child of three. He was raised as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and continues to be active in the Church to this day. He says that his whole life he “felt more like a guy than a girl” but it took him until he was 17 to transition--to begin identifying and presenting as male. He’s been living what he calls his “eternal gender” for almost three years.

On the outside, Grayson seems like your average Utahan young adult male--he’s studying math at the University of Utah, works part-time at a call center, and has a steady girlfriend. But his journey to becoming “Grayson” was anything but average.

“As a kid I had never really heard of the concept of being transgender, so it was difficult to acknowledge those feelings when I didn't have words to describe them,” Grayson says. As he grew older, he began cultivating a more masculine appearance and didn’t correct people when they called him “young man” or “sir.” But it was his mom who actually introduced him to the concept of being transgender. He began having crushes on girls in high school, and when he finally told his mom about it, she told him that there was a whole community of people who feel that their gender and their bodies don’t match, and asked him if that was how he felt. “It was a huge relief to have words for the things I'd been experiencing, and to know that there were other people out there like me,” he says.

The entire concept of transgenderism has existed in multiple cultures throughout recorded history, but it’s still so little understood that public conversation about it is still fairly recent, especially in Western culture. Many trans men and women live "in the closet," and Grayson considers himself lucky to have such a strong support system, especially among his family. “They've been there for me every step of the way,” Grayson says. “I don't know if I could have done this without them.”

Just to give our readers a little context, here’s a little “Transgender 101.” Everyone is born with sex characteristics. For most people, these line up in the binaries of male and female. If someone has XY chromosomes and a penis/testicles, they're assigned male at birth. If they have XX chromosomes and a vagina, they're assigned female at birth. But gender is a little more complicated. Gender isn't in the chromosomes, or in our sex traits--it's in the brain. For most people, their gender identity aligns along the same binary lines as their sex characteristics. Most people with penises and XY chromosomes identify as male, and most people with XX chromosomes and vaginas identify as female.

"Transgender" is the word we use to describe people whose gender identity is the binary opposite of their sex characteristics. It’s not to be confused with being homosexual, or being a “drag queen” or dressing like a man or woman for certain societal privileges. The condition of "gender dysphoria"--the sense that one's body doesn't match one's gender--is considered a clinical disorder by the psychological and medical community. This is kind of complicated...on the one hand, there's a bit of a stigma attached, but on the other hand, this means that many insurance companies will cover hormones and/or surgeries. Still a little uncertain? Grayson explained it in an apt analogy:

"Have you ever gotten carsick? Carsickness, like many other forms of motion sickness, occurs when your inner ears and your eyes disagree about whether you're moving. Gender dysphoria is like that. Awful, nauseating, headache-inducing wrongness from the disagreement of your mind and body. And you feel it every time you wear the wrong clothes, or are called by the wrong pronoun, or hear your own voice, or someone looks at you and sees something you aren't; every time you look in the mirror, every time you think about yourself it's like a knife in the gut because it's wrong wrong wrong it's not you but it won't go away and it won't stop and it hurts, it hurts like nothing you can imagine and nothing I can describe. It's so bad that I would literally rather die than feel like that again, even for a day."

It’s true that gender dysphoria is closely associated with depression and anxiety, and in many cases, even suicide. It's not quite that gender dysphoria itself causes depression--it's that we live in a world that doesn't give us tools to talk about gender identity, and a world that isn't always welcoming to anything it's not used to. (Things are getting better, though!) Years ago a friend and I were discussing the concept of gender dysphoria, and because it’s something I’ve never experienced, I told her that I had a hard time imagining what it’s like. I’ve always felt I was a woman, and I have a "woman's body." With great wisdom, this friend said she couldn’t imagine it either until one day she thought, “Imagine the shame and confusion and pain you would feel if you woke up one day and had a penis.” It sounds so outlandish, but it helped me gain a little perspective. It would be almost impossible to explain that experience to others, especially if I had no words for it. For me personally, I know I’m a woman, but that knowledge doesn’t come from what my body looks like. Think about it--most of us didn’t realize we were a boy or a girl (or both or neither) because we were told we were. It was something we always knew. As Grayson himself says, “Our sense of gender is something that most people take for granted, but it's very deeply written into the mind.”

(For a short but brilliant and more detailed explanation of gender, biological sex, and orientation, check out this video from vlogbrother Hank Green.)

Gender dysphoria affects a little under 1% of the population, and research indicates that the experience is mostly genetic. There are some rare cases in which abuse and trauma can result in a gender identity disorder, but for the most part, it’s a purely biological condition. (Perhaps the difference can be explained in that trauma can cause someone to hate their body as it is, while gender dysphoria is more about longing for a different body.) Currently, "transition" (or making changes to align your body and your gender identity) is the best and most effective treatment for gender dysphoria, whether that means social transition, legal transition, medical transition, or some combination of the above.

Grayson was gracious and understanding enough to answer my intrusive questions about his transition. He's fully transitioned socially, and has had his name legally changed. His legal gender change is still in the works. He’s been taking testosterone hormones for several years, and has had top surgery to remove his breasts. As for bottom surgery? At this point, female-to-male genital reassignment is pretty expensive, and not terribly effective, so many tend to skip it, Grayson included. Grayson also kindly reminded me that, “Most people would rather not discuss the contents of their pants with strangers, so it's not usually polite to ask about that sort of thing.” Journalism and education are some rare exceptions, but in general, it's best practice to leave the details about other people's bodies to them.

As a member of a small and often misunderstood community, Grayson is unique. But here’s what makes him even more unique: his continued membership in the LDS church. Wait, you may be thinking. He’s MORMON? As in, that church that takes a ridiculously strong stance on gay marriage and gender and families? That’s the one. It’s true that the LDS Church doesn’t have the greatest reputation in LGBT communities, and those who don’t fit the “cookie cutter conservative” image of Mormonism can sometimes struggle to find a place. So how does Grayson reconcile his faith with his understanding of gender?

“The Proclamation to the World talks about how gender is an eternal characteristic of identity and purpose, and I certainly believe that,” Grayson says. “I know that my spirit was male in the [premortal life], and is male now, and that in the resurrection I will have a male body to match my spirit. There are all kinds of problems and deformities in people's mortal bodies, and sex determination is no exception.” When Grayson and his mom had that conversation about being transgender all those years ago, Grayson did what he’d always been taught to do: he prayed about it. “I had one of the most vivid and profound spiritual experiences of my life; the Lord told me ‘You're a boy, and it's going to be okay.’” Scripture study and prayer (and other “Sunday school answers”) have also been big parts of Grayson’s continued testimony. So has transitioning, he says. “I used to kinda take the Church for granted. Having the risk that it could all be taken away from me made me realize how much the gospel means to me.”

Having it all taken away? “Life as an active Mormon LGBTQ person involves what some of us call ‘Bishop Roulette,’ which is that every time you have to move to a new ward you can never be sure how accepting your new leadership is going to be,” Grayson explains. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is run entirely by “lay-leadership”--everything is done on a volunteer basis, with no formal training. Which also means that some leaders are better equipped to deal with LGBTQ issues than others. “There's a lot of variation between wards in how LGBTQ members are treated, and if you end up with a homophobic and/or transphobic bishop you can have a lot of problems,” Grayson explains. “I've gotten lucky so far, but if I ended up in a ward with a transphobic bishop I could lose my temple recommend, or maybe even be excommunicated, and there would be very little I could do about it.” does Grayson’s relationship with his girlfriend factor in? The Church’s stance on homosexual activity is clear no matter who your bishop is. But one thing Grayson and his girlfriend have in common is being transgender--Brianna was assigned male at birth, but has transitioned to living her life female. “It is kind of convenient as it pertains to the church that we're both trans, because our relationship is heterosexual either way you look at it, so there's no risk of leaders having a problem with it,” Grayson says. I can’t help but smile at this, since Grayson and Brianna seem to be a great couple. They met in a choir over a year ago, and have been together ever since.

Brianna says that the first thing she noticed about Grayson was his voice. “There are lots of cute boys in the world, but few that can sing like him,” she says. She also says she admires his sense of integrity. “He doesn’t let opposition stop him from doing what he loves,” she says, “And he doesn’t let a church’s less than favorable stance on transgender people keep him from attending. That’s really powerful to me.”

As for what drew Grayson to Brianna? “She's a really good person,” he says, “And we're very compatible personality-wise. And we share a lot of the same interests, and she's a music major, and she's beautiful and tall and she doesn't think I'm a complete derp and she likes my cooking so basically we're soulmates.” (Are you grinning as big as I was when I heard this?) While Grayson says his girlfriend is a really good person, it’s clear that this is one thing that she and Grayson have in common. He is outspoken and passionate about educating others. He says the most important thing the rest of the world can do to help the transgender community is to “just be compassionate and listen to us.”

It strikes me as an act of tremendous courage to come out as transgender, especially within the Church. But Grayson wisely observed that coming out is about more than just courage. “Sometimes people talk about how ‘brave’ it is to transition, but it's not about bravery, really. I didn't transition because I was brave, I transitioned because spending my life pretending to be someone I'm not was killing me, and I don't want to die.”

Today, Grayson has chosen to speak out on behalf of the transgender community, and hopes that others can find the peace he has by transitioning. As for those who may be still in the closet, Grayson encourages them to be honest with those around them, and to transition as quickly and safely as possible. “Gender dysphoria often results in feelings of anxiety, depression, and self-loathing which are extremely corrosive to the soul. Gender dysphoria kills, and you dang well deserve to live.”

And this is the truth that Grayson is sharing with everyone around him. That we all, regardless of gender, sex, or orientation, dang well deserve to live.

If you or someone you know is experiencing gender dysphoria and would like support or more information, call the GLBT National Hotline at 1-888-843-4564. All calls are free and confidential. You can also visit their website here.

Latter-day Saints wishing to receive guidance and support on the transgender experience are also encouraged to join the open Facebook group Mormons Building Bridges. Allies and family members may also find helpful resources there as well.

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